This is not a conversion story, but it is one of redemption. Many years before finally finding the path that leads to life, my Savior showed me the path to a lifesaving light. I heard Him clearly, but I did not recognize Him.
It was growing dark and, as is typical in southern Germany by summer’s end, the sky was descending in misty layers all around me. I knew that I would soon be “socked-in” until morning. So, I hurried my pre-flight and “lit the fire” in the Kiowa helicopter’s powerful little Allison turbine engine.
My unit, the Aviation Section for the forward-deployed brigade of the First Infantry Division, was on a REFORGER exercise, but we only had one of our two Hueys by TO&E (Table of Organization and Equipment) and two of our four Kiowa scout birds to support the headquarters of the brigade and four battalions, three Infantry and one Armor. Availability for the unit had been a problem for weeks prior to my recent intra-theater transfer from Korea. Before my arrival, there had been no section leader or qualified maintenance test pilot. Filling both roles until a maintenance warrant officer could be assigned, I had had one of my more responsible enlisted men drive me in from the field to our direct support maintenance facility near Stuttgart’s Kelly Barracks to pick up this bird. It had been there for repairs beyond our local capability. My plan now was to return to our field location with this additional asset, but to stop off first en-route to refuel at the airfield at Göeppingen where the brigade was normally garrisoned. It was only a few miles to the east. If the weather closed-in after arriving there, well, I’d have a perfect excuse for spending a night in my own bed snuggled up next to the misses. So, I sent my driver on ahead of me with the jeep.
With the main rotor at flight rpm, I pulled-in just enough pitch to get light on the skids, then I turned-on my landing light and made a radio call on the Kelly Barracks’ traffic advisory frequency announcing my intended departure to the east.
A last-minute instrument cross check revealed a nearly-empty fuel condition. But, the weather was closing-in. The time it would take to shut down, call for a fuel truck, fill-up, and then startup again would surely mean having to spend the night in bachelor officers’ transient quarters on post or in a local hotel room for the night. Neither option was desirable at this point. Besides, I knew Göeppingen was less than ten minutes away by air and the helicopter’s twenty-minute fuel-low warning light wasn’t on yet. So I made a snap decision to take off directly from the ground without even bothering to hover/taxi to the helipad. It was late, there was no tower, and nobody was watching anyway.
Göeppingen and the airfield there, an old World War II Luftwaffe base, was about 4 “klicks” (40 kilometers) southeast and just to the north of a highway leading out of Stuttgart toward the city of Ulm famous for having a cathedral with the tallest steeple in the world, 530 feet. I figured that if I just followed the highway, even as the weather conditions grew worse, I’d be able to see Göeppingen’s rotating beacon within just a few minutes of flight time — one solid green beam, followed by a rotating, split beam of white. But there were two highways leading out of Stuttgart in the same general direction. The one I was following was the wrong one. Flying alone and at night without benefit of someone to help navigate is never a good idea. It’s especially stupid when the visibility is poor and the cloud ceiling is low. And I got stupid that night. I had “get-home-itis.”
Fifteen minutes passed and I was beginning to doubt the worthiness of my judgment. I had seen no rotating beacon and, in the distance, I could see the glow of city lights – much too distant and much too big for Göeppingen. Panic began to take hold of me when the twenty-minute fuel-low warning light illuminated. As a maintenance officer, I knew that these warning lights never came on when there was exactly twenty minutes of fuel left – sometimes more, sometimes less. And the fuel gauge was pegged against the left stop. This meant less.
I tuned my FM radio to Göeppingen’s tower frequency and made a call.
“Göeppingen tower, this is Army 3807, on FM, over.”
There was no answer. I was flying too low for the FM radio signal. Had they been able to hear me and answered, the ADF (Automation Direction Finder) needle on the helicopter’s RMI (Radio Magnetic Indicator) would have pointed in the way to the airfield. Neither the UHF (Ultra High Frequency) nor VHF (Very High Frequency) radios the helicopter was equipped with worked with the ADF. I couldn’t gain any more altitude for the FM direction finder trick to work, but I wasn’t quite ready to admit to the whole world that I was lost.
I started planning to make an emergency landing – somewhere and make an emergency transmission on guard, frequencies set aside on UHF and VHF just for this purpose. But where to set it down… and where was I anyway? All I could see were the lights of cars traveling in both directions on an autobahn at speeds that would make most American drivers hug the right lane all the way home. Tall trees, I knew, lined both sides of the highway, and there were probably power lines too that I could not see. So I revised course and started flying back toward Stuttgart. I started praying too, as good agnostics often do — just in case — when things start getting really scary.
Miraculously, with the lights of Stuttgart now before me, the geometry of the area looked wrong. I checked the magnetic heading to the center of Stuttgart’s lights and made a slight heading correction to the left, 250 degrees, abandoning the lights of the autobahn in favor of the shortest distance back to Kelly Barracks.
The words just popped into my head, “Fly 232 degrees.”
“What,” I said on the tower’s FM frequency. “Say again Göeppingen.”
“Göeppingen tower, this is Army 3807. Say again your last transmission, over.”
Again I heard the words, “Fly 232 degrees.” Well… no, I didn’t actually hear it, or did I? Maybe I just thought it. But why?
Obviously, I had not been following the right highway. This one would have eventually taken me to the city of Aalen. I was sure of it now… well, almost. But why had I not seen the airfield’s rotating beacon? I still should have seen it, wrong highway or not! The airfield was only a mile or two from either autobahn.
I concluded that the airfield should be off to my left front now. It had to be.
“Fly 232 degrees.” There it was again, but now it made sense. So, on faith, I turned to 232 degrees.
Maybe the beacon was out, I thought… Had I been there myself, as the section leader and airfield commander, it would have been my responsibility to post a NOTAM (notice to airman) of that fact. Even so, the air-traffic controllers manning the tower would have taken the initiative to do this in my absence. Ah, I thought, I’ve been in the field for several days. I’ve not had access to real-world NOTAMs.
After a few minutes on this new heading, with nothing above or below me but total blackness, I checked my altitude — a thousand feet. Should be high enough to avoid any terrain or structures in the area, I thought.
I tried the tower frequency again.
“Göeppingen tower… Army 3807, over.”
“Army 3807, this is Göeppingen tower,” came the reply.
“Wait one,” I said, adjusting my FM radio to home so that the ADF (Automatic Direction Finder) would point to the tower’s next transmission.
“Göeppingen… Army 3807, give me a slow count, bitte (German for please).”
“Roger Army 3807, I count – one… two… three… four… five… six… seven… eight… nine… ten. End of slow count, over.”
“Thank you, tower. ” I could barely disguise the relief I felt in my last message. “Tell me, has the beacon been out?”
My assessment of the situation had been correct, so was the heading that just popped into my head. By the ADF needle on the helicopter’s Radio/magnetic Indicator (RMI) I knew that the airfield was dead ahead. But, still I could see no beacon.
“Negative Army 3807. Beacon’s burn’n bright.”
Wait, wasn’t that a green glow followed by two quick white ones? Yes. There it was, the beam’s shine filtered and attenuated through the tall trees that almost surrounded the airfield. Had I been approaching from southwest or any other direction, all the way around to the east, I’d have seen it just fine. But the trees were in the way from the west all the way around to the northeast. I’d never noticed that before. I’d have to do something about it for safety’s sake right away.
I landed safely that night, but only on fumes from the small amount of JP4 that had been on board when I left Stuttgart. I’ll never know for sure how really close I came to disaster. But I had found the right path, the one that led to life, or at least a life on earth that would last awhile longer. But had it been my superior aviation skills that saved me that night, or had there been an answer to this unbeliever’s prayer?
Years later, as I reflected on this question and the events of that night, I came to know the answer finally. It had not been my flying ability, nor had it been my good judgment. Luck? Nah, that’s for gamblers. Truth is, the Savior I did not then know had been my co-pilot that night. He had kept me for the day when I would finally recognize Him. By revealing Himself to me, He had shown me not only the path to a lifesaving light, but the path to everlasting life as well.
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